I learned many things from my father.
He taught me how to play softball, to build a sukkah, to read non-fiction, to not talk in shul, to avert your eyes during the Priestly Blessing, and above all, to never ever eat okra (even with onion and garlic powder).
But he never taught me how to say Yizkor.
(Yizkor, the mourner’s prayer, is said on Yom Kippur and on the last day of the three “pilgrimage” holidays — give or take — by people who have lost a parent. In many shuls, people who haven’t lost a parent leave the sanctuary for the five minutes it takes for the prayer to be said, and then they come back in for the rest of services.)
The first time I stayed behind for Yizkor, after his death —
Well, at the funeral, the show is run by professionals, and they tell you what to do and when. At the shiva, people give you food and they bring you chairs and they say the words printed on the wall when they get up to go home. But when I joined this club, the Yizkor-sayers, with the veterans who’d lost parents five years ago, eight years ago, 50 years ago or more, there was no initiation. All I did was stay, all I did was not move my feet, and then I was one of them, only without a clue how to act.
I turned to the appropriate page in the siddur and, despite the fact that I’ve been going to shul pretty regularly on Shabbat and holidays since childhood, I had no idea what was flying. Sure, there was this first paragraph that you say for a father — that’s simple enough. But wait, do I identify him by his mother’s name or with his father’s name? When someone is called up to the Torah, they’re identified by their father’s name, but when they’re sick and being prayed for, they’re identified by their mother’s name. And what about this other paragraph for male relatives — which male relatives? Is that supposed to be instead of or in addition to the Yizkor paragraph? And all these other paragraphs for victims of anti-Semitism and so on? Am I supposed to say this quietly or does the chazzan say it for everyone? And am I really supposed to make a neder? What if I forget to give tzedaka? Is there an app to remind you? Am I supposed to cry? Am I allowed to cry?
When I was a child, I learned how to daven weekday prayers in school, from my teachers, and I learned how to daven Shabbat and holiday prayers in shul, from my father. And I learned from my father that when it’s time for Yizkor, those of us whose parents are alive leave the sanctuary, to show respect to our living parents and to give privacy to the mourners, who have gone through an experience we can’t imagine. Okay, and also to get some fresh air on a beautiful day and please God let nobody be smoking by the shul doors — have some self-control, people.
But that first Yizkor, there was no one to teach me what to say and how to say it. Which is, I guess, kind of a fitting metaphor for losing a parent.
(If I had realized in advance of the holiday, I could have asked my mother, who, as a mourner, made a point to arrive at shul in time for Yizkor every year as far back as I can remember, but I didn’t think that it would be so complicated, and at the time, she was six-thousand miles away.)
Some people may point to this post and say, “A-ha! This is what happens when non-mourners leave the sanctuary during Yizkor! The community must stand as one! And it’s distracting for mourners when non-mourners shuffle out! And there’s no such thing as an ayin hara, anyway!” Ease up on the exclamation points, Some People.
Yes, some people, and even some people with experiences similar to mine, say that non-mourners shouldn’t leave the sanctuary during Yizkor. Some people even make halachic arguments for it. I still think it’s right for non-mourners to leave. I appreciate the privacy, and the unspoken camaraderie between the stayers.
I can’t imagine that everyone who says Yizkor will relate to everything I’ve written here. Some people didn’t learn Judaism from their parents. Some people didn’t have a relationship where they saw their parents as teachers. Some people have grown up staying during Yizkor; some of them may have, in fact, learned how to say Yizkor from their parents, or from a rabbi or teacher. Some of them disagree with me on the importance of privacy, and think that grief isn’t something that should be hidden. So be it. As different as our backgrounds are, we still have this in common, which is that there is a person we didn’t call and send our love to before the holiday this year. Or for the past five, eight, fifty or more years.
And none of us have an app to remind us to give tzedaka :-/